Monthly Archives: November 2013

Funeral for a friend

I’d never met Ria Pell.  But when the 44 year old restauranteur died suddenly Sunday, my Facebook feed blew up with grief.  Friends described her an an honorable woman with a memorable personality.  The tributes talked about her as a Memorial Drive pioneer, her presence in the LGBT community and her victorious moment in a reality show called Chopped.

Ria Pell

Ria Pell

Monday, I pitched her passing as a story for 11Alive news.  The powers-that-be bought it, and I almost immediately regretted it.

The biggest problem was getting usable images of Ria. It put me in the uncomfortable position of asking her grieving friends to dig through photos and turn them over to me.

I thought I struck gold when I discovered that 11 Alive News had done a Unique Eats segment on Ria’s Bluebird Cafe in 2010.  But Ria never appeared in the piece.

Facebook had plenty of photos, and Ria’s own page appeared to have no privacy settings.  But Gannett won’t allow us to poach photos from Facebook without explicit permission from the creator of the photo.

Video from Ria’s appearance on Chopped would have helped enormously.  The Food Network had a lot of cryptically-labeled video of episodes online, but it was impossible to know if the Ria episode was one of them without scrolling through each one.  Our 7pm newscast producer, Molly Baker, tried gamely to wrangle some video from the Food Network.  An indifferent publicist hinted that she’d try to find some video for us, then went dark.  (Update:  She cheerfully emailed us a 30 second clip some 18 hours after my deadline passed.)

Meantime, my 6pm deadline was rapidly approaching.  This story, I knew, would get close scrutiny from people who “never watch” TV news because they think it sucks, yet would have high expectations for my 90 second piece.

As I was outside Ria’s Bluebird Cafe with photog Al Ashe, friends and patrons walked and drove up to the closed restaurant.  The sign on the door attributed the closing to an unspecified “emergency.”  One of them was Chris Arrison, whose lovely wife Dana works with my wife.  He ended up being one of my better interviews.  It also raised the stakes for me, scrutiny-wise.

Grant Henry, owner of the Edgewood Ave. bar called Church, responded to my arm twisting and did some phone work to provide photos.  Holly Aguirre tried to get me video of Ria’s moment on Jim Stacy’s PBS show Get Delicious, but I couldn’t reach Stacy to get permission; he was on a plane to California at the moment I realized I needed to reach him.

imageFortunately, Dyana Bagby saved my ass.  The new editor of the Georgia Voice had photographed the watch party Ria had for her Chopped episode a year ago.  She offered to allow us to poach her photos from LGBTQ weekly’s site.

All this distracted me from taking the time I needed to write a thoughtful piece about Ria’s passing.  The worst possible thing I could have done was trotted out a bit of hastily-written hackery on this occasion.  The piece was hastily written, and outside of my comfort zone.  I rarely write obits.

At 5pm, after I’d completed the script, I went to the Georgia Voice site — and got a 404 error code.  Dyana had told me earlier in the day that the site was having issues.  I texted her — literally pleading with her to drop whatever important thing she was doing, and email me some photos.  Damned if she didn’t do exactly that.  And they were pretty great photos.

I presented the photos to Al Ashe, who was editing the piece, at about 5:40pm.  Al did a nice job of editing it.  At a crisp 1:21, it turned out the piece was not an embarrassment.

Twelve hours later, it’s one of the most-viewed stories on — perhaps because Ria’s friends deemed it worthy to share online.


anchorman-2-poster-will-ferrell-ron-burgundyThe biggest cinema event in Atlanta TV news will premiere some time next month.  I’m anticipating Anchorman 2 with a mixture of anticipation and dread.  On one hand, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy was the most important movie ever made about local TV news.  Based on that alone, the sequel is worth anticipating.  On the other hand, there will inevitably be recycled jokes.  The Hangover 2 was a godawful sequel to a fine lowbrow comedy.  Anchorman 2 has potential for similar wretchedness.

But  — it was filmed in Atlanta.  One suspects there will be cameo appearances by local news folk.  I’ve heard no scuttlebutt of any appearances from any personnel from my station; I’m rooting for the other non-WSB stations to have some placement in the movie.  If there’s going to be anybody in it from WSB, I’m rooting, of course, for Mark Winne in a trench coat.

The producers of the movie did not call me, unfortunately (and I failed to make any effort to reach out them).  My appearances in Squidbillies should have had them hot on my heels.  Apparently, my ability to churn other peoples’ comedic material in cartoon voiceover never got on their radar.

Early Cuyler

Early Cuyler

Next week I’m due to do a voiceover for my fourth Squidbillies episode.  This appears to be making me into a bona fide recurring role.  In each episode, I’ve played “Doug Richards,” a reporter appearing on TV within a graphics package that looks remarkably like WXIA’s.

My acting skills are clearly limited.  I suspect they feel they’re kinda stuck with me though, given that they’ve already got a template for my caricature.  Plus, they work with my wife.

120816123554_doug_20on_20squids_0My character is a plot device.  So far, he’s been called upon to

  • report on a crime spree by the main character;
  • report on a north Georgia cave that seemed to alter the theory of evolution;
  • report on the Atlanta Pride parade (mistaken by the main character, Early Cuyler, as a parade devoted to country music legend Charley Pride);
  • report on (fill in the blank.  They haven’t sent me the script for next week’s taping yet.)

So I won’t be in Anchorman 2.  But I will be in Squidbillies, season nine, episode TBD — assuming my boss OKs the script, and I make the episode’s final edit.

As an aside, can we get the guy who does the voice of Dan Halen to cut some news promos on some Atlanta station please?

In other news, an Atlanta radio show sampled a story I produced last week and put it in a song.  I didn’t even know those guys were still on the radio.

Meantime — one of my coworkers shows up in a ten-frame Daily Show cameo, and the flicker of hope remains kindled for yours truly.

Between the lines

More often than not, this blog isn’t about what I’m actually writing.  It’s about what I’m not writing.  I have a wealth of material I’m withholding.  Mostly, it’s to preserve my relationships– in particular, with my boss and with folks out in the world with whom I must retain a level of rapport.

Here’s what I’m not writing about these days.

Here's a photo I'm not writing about

Here’s a photo I’m not writing about

The (friendly, I thought) politician who told me he thinks my coverage of him sucks.   The politician called my boss to “spin” a story before it aired.  When I texted him to object, he texted back with the surprise critique.  A post might be instructive, but risky.

The latest wrinkle in a volatile relationship with a difficult yet (I admit grudgingly) effective PIO.  The story has the makings of a hilarious post, which I’ll probably never write.

The ridiculous offer by an agency to grant me a long-sought “exclusive” — except for the caveat that I couldn’t record any TV images.  I probably will write this one at some point, but I haven’t completely given up on the story (which wouldn’t be that big an “exclusive” anyway).

The arguably mismanaged launch of a political candidacy.  I say “arguably” because it probably wasn’t.  But it sure did inconvenience journalists!  And that’s what matters, right?

The ups and downs of advocacy journalism.  Perhaps soon.  But not today.

The out-of-work pol who threatened me bodily this spring.  A post would have been a tired repetition of a familiar theme.

The weird new political tilt of a once-noble local news organization.  This would violate my self-imposed moratorium on talking shit about my competitors.

The most laughably worthless waste-of-skin publicist in metro Atlanta.  Actually, this would be an amusing online competition.  Unfortunately, I still call and email my useless nominee, so this post would be ill-advised.

Great local PIOs.  There are some who stand out.  But if I name them, I fear they will face reprisal from their small-minded bosses.


Meatball’s story

The woman wore a script tattoo above her clavicle that said “Big Dog’s Bitch.”  She was angry.  She was chatty.  She was drinking a beer.  It was barely noon.


“Meatball” and me

The tattoo was visible because she was wearing a dirty white tank top.  The getup needed an undergarment but she wasn’t wearing one.

When I asked her her name, she said “Meatball.”  Meatball saved my story Thursday.

She was one of more than a dozen people I’d spotted on Coleman St. SW Thursday, a day after a gun battle raged between competing gangs.  The neighborhood, in Atlanta’s Pittsburgh community, was rough — as evidenced by the number of boarded-up houses, the apparent unemployment of working-age people who were hanging out during the day.  And, of course, the gang fight.

My boss felt that my TV station should send somebody into the neighborhood after the gang fight sent an 11 year old boy to a hospital with a gunshot wound.  I noted that communities often clam up after such incidents.  In a place controlled by gangs, nobody wants to appear to be a snitch.  Plus, police hadn’t announced any arrests.  The people with the guns were still out there.

The boss was insistent.  I semi-volunteered to go.

We left the camera in the car as we approached the folks on Coleman St.  I identified myself.  Some of them kind of recognized me.  (“Buck Lanford!  Wait, no.  Randy Travis?”)

They were wary but not hostile.  The woman who called herself Meatball emerged as the one most willing to talk about the neighborhood and the conditions that led to the gun battle.   She was animated.  She was semi-articulate.

People often ask us:  Why do you put the dumbest people on the news?  I’m not saying Meatball was dumb.  She was profane.  She used street vernacular.  She was easy to understand in person, once you got the flow of her language.  In sound bite form, she was a less-than-ideal spokeswoman for Coleman St. SW — and probably raised that frequently-asked question among our viewers.

She was all I had, though.  Her tone and her body language spoke volumes about the conditions on Coleman St.  Not to mention, her willingness to helpfully point out a drug transaction that was taking place within camera range.

She saved our story when she began engaging some of the other people on the street in a spirited discussion of the previous evening’s events.  By this time, they’d gotten accustomed to us and the camera we’d produced with Meatball’s consent.  The anger and finger-pointing gave our story what appeared to be a real sense of what life was like on a street wracked with crime and violence.

Pastor Anita Favors

Pastor Anita Favors

(If you view the story, you’ll also we that we got even luckier when Pastor Anita Favors also agreed to chat with us.  Favors gave the story clarity, while Meatball and Co. delivered a lot of raw emotion.)

So we got lucky.  And the boss, it turned out, wasn’t completely wrong.